Children can learn so much through play. Unstructured play benefits kids' mental and physical health—it helps them make sense of the world around them through teaching boundaries and social interactions and it's even good for you, too, mama. But how many toys do your little ones really need? And which ones will get played with the most?
When choosing toys for your baby and toddler, we like the less-is-more Montessori-inspired approach: fewer, higher quality toys, each with a purpose, made from mostly natural materials, that can grow along with your child. Clutter can be overwhelming for little ones, and the science tells us that children play longer and more happily with less toys.
We've chosen 18 Montessori-inspired toys that will inspire imagination and encourage open-ended play from the baby years through toddlerhood and beyond. Your littles will come back to these toys again and again.
Unlike bikes with pedals and training wheels, balance bikes make learning to ride effortless and fun. By learning the key skill of balance first, they're able to progress to riding without having to "unlearn" bad habits that take hold when riding with training wheels. This version from New Zealand brand Wishbone is pricier than others, but designed to last far longer than most models and the heirloom quality means it can easily be passed down.
Let your little artist's creativity flourish with this wooden double-sided easel that will take them from first scribbles to preschool masterpieces! This simple, yet functional, easel from Hape features a chalkboard, a magnetic dry erase board (magnets included!), refillable paper dispenser, three no-spill cups and a tray for storing paints and other art supplies. It's sure to become a playroom staple.
Watch even the tiniest baby react to music and you'll immediately realize the powerful impact it can have on social, emotional and cognitive development. We love the soft edges that make this style safe for the littlest musicians while the soft rubber-headed mallet creates a variety of lovely tones no matter how they play.
Balance boards are one of the most simple toys with an endless amount of use. They can help your child develop their equilibrium while making for a fun exercise routine, then flip it over and it becomes a ramp for cars or even a small slide. It can even become a prop for imaginative play. And while there are tons on the market, we love the addition of the felt bottom on this one from Coco Village. They offer a variety of colors to coordinate with your personal style!
Pikler triangles are a staple in Montessori classrooms and have subsequently gained popularity at home as well. Developed as a tool to help improve motor development skills, to forge independent activity, and to allow freedom of movement, they're endlessly entertaining for toddlers and bigger kids alike. This foldable version comes with detachable ramp that features rungs to climb on one side and a flat surface for sliding on the other.
This indoor climbing structure is designed to begin use as young as six months and can be configured to grow with your child from there. Nine foam pieces can be arranged into stairs, a tunnel, and a slide, allowing your child to practice motor and balance skills and burn off all that extra energy. The pieces are easy to clean and Green Guard (gold) certified.
From around age three, you can introduce more sophisticated instruments like the wooden guitars from Loog. They're not only designed with little hands in mind, they also incorporate only three strings to make the learning process faster and easier.
A learning tower is the perfect tool for the curious toddler. There are so many uses here, but we especially love it for all things in the kitchen, whether it's cooking, baking, or even learning to meal prep or wash dishes. We also love that this one from Sprout is sturdy and adjustable to grow with your child. It's an investment, but one that we think is well worth the splurge! (Check out more of our favorite learning towers!)
From modeling real life to setting the stage for imaginative play, we love the simplicity of this wooden dollhouse. It comes with furniture for a living room, bathroom, bedroom and kitchen. An open design allows multiple kiddos to play together peacefully (well, peacefully enough) and there are plenty of accessories that can be purchased separately to expand their play!
When a full-on sensory table isn't a possibility (or, let's face it, you're not up for the mess), this scaled-down version provides the same benefits with less commitment. Perfectly sized for tabletop play (just remove the legs!) and suitable for water or sand, this set combines sensory and realistic play that grows with your littles.
Blocks are the ultimate in Montessori must-haves; they teach endless developmental concepts and provide hours upon hours of creative, open-ended play opportunities. This natural wood set presents a world of possibility and is sustainably made from re-purposed rubber wood.
The ever-popular Magna-Tiles are great for encouraging open-ended, creative play and developing math, science, spatial and fine motor skills. The magnetic sides will inspire beginning builders and help more experienced builders think "outside the box."
Realistic play is one of the tenants of Montessori-based education; it helps children relate to and understand the world around them and develop meaningful connections.
This beautiful wooden play barn and seven realistic animal figurines will capture the imaginations of babies, toddlers and preschoolers alike. It even folds and features a carry handle for easy take-along play!
This rainbow may look basic, but through the eyes of your child, it offer endless opportunities for imaginative play! From early concepts like color identification and developing fine motor skills, to more advanced concepts like building, nesting, and pretend play, this simple, colorful—and so, so beautiful—heirloom-quality puzzle stacker will quickly become a playtime favorite. It's also available in a 12-piece larger size.
Exploration and activity are two important pieces of the Montessori philosophy—little hands should be encouraged to sort, pour, scoop and empty with all kinds of liquids and materials. This handcrafted sensory table made from natural pine is a great way to check all of those boxes and contain the mess 😉 It can be filled with sand, rice, or even hold trays of water for years of sensory play.
Radio Flyer wagons have been around for decades—and for good reason. They're beautiful, fun, and functional, and can be enjoyed by babies and toddlers alike. We love the early walker take on this one, featuring "resist push" that allows beginning walkers to safely build confidence and balance. (We also love the furniture-friendly bumpers!) Once they learn to walk, they'll find still find lots of other uses for this classic toy.
Is it a couch? A bed? A spaceship? Or a castle? Only your little one will know the answer! Encouraging open-ended play is a Montessori must—and this ingenious kid-sized "couch" with four separate foam pieces offers endless play possibilities. Your little one will love that it's fun, soft, and endlessly rearrange-able, and you'll love that it's safe, free of harmful chemicals, and machine washable.
There's a simple delight in watching objects speeding down a ramp, and that joy is not lost on this classic toy. This ramp racer is not only fun, but teaches fine and gross motor skills, cause and effect, hand-eye coordination, and much more. Babies will laugh as the cars speed down the ramps, while toddlers and older kiddos will love engaging in pretend play and racing their cars over and over again.
For a different take on the classic block set that babies and older kiddos will love, we can't get enough of this set of oversize foam blocks. Made from soft, durable foam, your little ones will love building, stacking, and most importantly knocking down these super fun blocks for years.
This article was originally published in July 2018. It has been updated.
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